Empowering Regular Folks with Citizen Science

Empowering Regular Folks with Citizen Science

Posted on

Mon, 11/14/2016 - 11:08am

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

The Trump ascendency is making a whole lot of people feel helpless right now, especially around his promises to gut environmental protections.  It’s not only climate change that necessitates we protect rather than pulp the environment now.  Species are disappearing at a record rate.  The World Wildlife Fund recently reported that in the last 40 years we have lost nearly 60 percent of vertebrate wildlife.  This is not just about polar bears going away because ice floes are melting beneath them.  We are losing wildlife in our own backyards, regions, counties, and on our continent.  Most of this loss is due to habitat conversion for agriculture and development. As money and progress are invoked, this loss of species will be trivialized: what do we need all those animals for, anyway?

The biological interactions of species like bugs, birds, bees, small mammals and large actually create the equable atmosphere we breathe and facilitate growth of the plants we eat (think pollinators).  Life doesn’t function for us without them.  As habitat disappears, disease transmission to humans is also facilitated.  Viruses that have lived in large animal hosts in jungles, for example, lose those hosts when the jungle goes away.  Happily for those viruses, there’s a new large-bodied host around, and it’s standing upright on two legs.

So yes, we need to act now to protect our natural resources.  We haven’t been doing an adequate job of that even under a sympathetic administration. Especially where the environment is concerned, “top down” directives to support it can only go so far under any circumstances.  Had Hillary Clinton been elected, we would still need to address extinction pressures on species -- including habitat conversion, outright killing, and pollution -- in local communities and regions.  The only way to really get a hold of the environmental crisis threatening life on Earth is from the bottom up.  Ironically, the election results have driven it home that in order to make change, each and every one of us needs to act.  No one at the top or anywhere else is going to do it for us.

So what to do?  The answer is citizen science.  Citizen science is regular people contributing to scientific research, and has many more nuanced definitions as well.  In broad strokes, however, ecologically-focused citizen science entails making observations of “species occurrences” in order to measure ecological health.  Right now, you can download the smart phone and web-based app iNaturalist, and start taking photographic observations of species where you live and recreate.  Even ordinary and common plants, bugs, birds, and small mammals are important data points for natural resource managers trying to get a sense of where life is doing well and where it is blinking out.  The Great Sunflower project helps pinpoint where native bees and other pollinators are observable in healthy numbers, for example, and where they are in decline.  This information can then direct where we should put our efforts at habitat restoration in order to bring back those vital species.  (There is a list of citizen science projects in the state of California on the California Naturalist website: www.calnat.ucanr.edu.)

Those of us concerned with protecting the environment need to do so with iron clad data that will hold up in court.  Take oil spills.  They happen; it’s not if, but when.  As President-elect Trump gives the green light to more drilling off our coasts, we are going to need data to document how much biodiversity is impacted.  That means knowing with credibility how many birds tarry and travel through the Pacific flyway, and then counting up the dead birds when the oil slicks kill them.  It’s a macabre illustration but we’re in a zero sum world.  Citizen science monitoring projects are by and large fun to do and get you outside in a healthful way.  But they also critically aid in quantifying populations of nature before and after man-made interventions on land and seascapes. (Check it out at www.pacificrockyintertidal.org.)

Healthy nature means healthy human communities.  Local neighborhoods need to monitor their water quality, the cleanliness of their air, and the relative density of greenery on their streets in order to help safeguard human well-being.  Going forward, we need to organize ourselves around monitoring projects that include city streets as well as wilderness.  The good news is the tools for doing so are here and widely available.  We just need to get out there and use them.

Mary Ellen Hannibal explains it all to you tonight at 5pm at the Luskin Center.  Her new book, Citizen Scientist:  Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction has been called “indispensible” as well as “beautiful.”  It’s full of practical information about why we need to do what we need to do.

By Mary Ellen Hannibal